Existentialism – An Intriguing Meditation

Existentialism is a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence.

There’s as much eloquent silence as dialogue in this captivating piece. Do not expect an oral treatise. A man and a woman of later years live side by side in separate houses. It’s clear they’ve kept intermittent company a long time, yet each conducts his/her life separately. When together, they barely look at one another and are most often speechless. Both are writers. Both are attempting to make sense of existence and of their own last acts in inexorably passing time.

Daily activities are few. She waters her plants, grocery shops; he reads – with a drink in his hand; they type facing one another in separate houses. He has a radio. She hums along. Sometimes, they share classical music. Sometimes the two sit side by side on like stools looking out at the sea. She shows signs of sexual attraction – outside his house, she unbuttons her blouse and purses her lips – and once, becomes an aggressor. Impasse. “Why am I myself? Why was I born female?”…Why do we even exist?” she rhetorically asks.

“Existence precedes essence. I mean that you exist first. Only afterwards do you define yourself…you are responsible for what you are,” he comments to himself, to us at the lip of the stage. “We find ourselves different from what we expected and what others expect of us. This is freedom, but it’s not a cheerful thing!”

They respectively muse on choice, what it means to be old, the sameness of days, maintaining motivation, connection.  Moments of pleasure in a café, in a park, observant and more poetic than other dialogue are recollected. But is it enough to sustain?  “I cannot always choose what happens to me, but I can choose what to make of it,” he says.

She scats softly to something on the radio. Out of nowhere they dance – side by side and together, wry, cool, without looking at each other. Rhythmic percussion buoys. It’s gently vaudevillian and utterly charming. “Nothing will ever happen to us,” he says. “We need to be immoderate!” Music shifts to rock and roll. Colored lights flash. In two distinct orbits, they raise and wave their arms, move around the stage seemingly improvising. “I want everything from life!” she declares. Ostensibly inspired, both return to typewriters.

When she leaves to shop or he takes a walk absence is acutely felt. As his faculties seem to diminish, she’s ever present. “I’m confused by the outrageous existence of all that is not you,” she says. “I am unmoored, but moving forward… a man who no longer has any idea what to do with his life…” he responds. There’s no arc, no revelation. It’s a slice of ongoing life, of mostly silent complicity. You might call it theater of the absurd, but then that’s more or less existentialism.

Both actors are remarkable. Whether talking directly to us as Paul Zimet often does – scanning the audience in complete focus – sitting side by side with awareness but complete lack of acknowledgment, in fugue states, or grasping at intimacy, presence is whole.

Anne Bogart directs with a light touch. Even comings and goings are aesthetic. The woman’s greater ability to reach out, her yearning is subtle, deferential. The man’s begrudging feelings emerge with finesse.

Anna Kiraly’s small, side by side house frames overlooking (projections of) a changing sky and sea create minimalist framework. Two like tables, two manual typewriters, two stools, one outdoor rocking chair, a row of plants and a back fence comprise the set. Light (Brian Scott) and sound (Darron L. West) are so organic, one is only occasionally aware of outstanding contribution. Gabriel Berry’s costumes are just right.

Anything by Talking Band is sure to be intriguing and beautifully produced. Add this one.

Photos by Maria Baranova

La Mama in association with Talking Band presents Existentialism                          
Created and Directed by Anne Bogart in collaboration with Ellen Maddow and Paul Zimet

Ellen Stewart Theatre 
66 East 4th Street
Through March 10, 2024

About Alix Cohen (1726 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.